Learning from History – from Hitler to pandemics

By Magnus Bashaarat, Head of Bedales

On Monday evening, historian Tim Bouverie came to Bedales for our second ‘real live’ Civics of the term. It was Tim’s first live gig since lockdown, and he was visibly pleased to be speaking to a real rather than virtual audience. It was a socially distanced audience, but a well- attended talk, and showed Bedales living with COVID, and not cancelling.

Tim’s 2019 book, Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War was what he came to talk about, but the questions in the second part of the talk ranged far and wide. Was there any similarity between the democratic world’s approach to Germany in the 30s and democratic Europe’s current approach to China? To what extent does personality rather than political pragmatism drive the decision-making that elected leaders execute on our behalf? To what extent did public schoolboy rivalries drive geo-political decision making: Eden was an Old Etonian, Churchill an Old Harrovian, Chamberlain an Old Rugbeian (I made that last one up, but let’s look at the current Cabinet).

If Germany had ‘invaded’ Czechoslovakia in 1938 to annex the Sudetenland and then called a halt to its well established agenda of righting the perceived wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles, then Chamberlain would have been hailed as a hero, another world war averted, and his statue would be in Parliament Square, not Churchill’s. The appeasers would have been vindicated; the anti-appeasers cast into the dustbin of politics to write their memoirs in whatever was the acceptable equivalent for a shepherd’s hut in 1940.

History will judge our politicians’ reactions to COVID-19 similarly. Perhaps the lockdown sceptics will be vindicated; it was all a massive over-reaction to bad ‘flu’ and 10% of GDP was an unnecessary loss to the country. Or the COVID paranoiacs might feel, like Cassandra, that had their prophecies been heeded, the dead would be alive. Whatever position on the spectrum one chooses to adopt, there is evidence available to support one’s view. The weight of evidence doesn’t equate to the weight of argument, and its validity. Rather like the Brexit debate, the vehemence of commitment to a position is fast becoming a substitute for veracity.

Returning from long leave we’ve outlined our plan for two more closed weekends before our two week half term. I understand Churcher’s College, our close neighbours in Petersfield, have shortened their half term from two weeks to just one, and are operating the second week of half term as an online teaching week to have a sort of ‘semain sanitaire’ prior to the second half of term. This would go down like a rat sandwich, I know, at Bedales, amongst students and staff battling to keep it all together during these next two weeks. But it reflects the range of responses to COVID-19 restrictions that schools across the country are exercising.

Bedales’ current COVID restrictions aren’t as restrictive as those operated by some schools, and we’re positioned broadly in the middle of the spectrum. Our SAMBA II testing machine, which arrived on Thursday this week, should be transformative in how we can test students and speed up the awful and open-ended wait for the test result to arrive. And the wider school community of staff and their families can benefit from it too. Gavin Williamson’s avowed intent to keep schools open is predictably fatuous because illness, if it does strike in a school community, will mean teachers unable to teach, as opposed to students unable to attend.

If the dreaded 14 day isolation is visited on anyone over the next few weeks then Bedales parent Adrian Wooldridge’s book, The Wake Up Call: Why the pandemic has exposed the weakness of the West and how to fix it, would be a good read. As a global index, the bigger the state machinery: the lower the death toll.

Fascinating Civics with historian Tim Bouverie

By Eben Macdonald, Block 5

On Tuesday we had the pleasure of attending a talk by the young historian Tim Bouverie, author of the book Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill and the Road to War. Bedales’ Head of History Matt Yeo asked Bouverie a variety of interesting questions about appeasement, Neville Chamberlain’s character and how the lessons of appeasement relate to today’s political environment. Although only students could attend the event in person, it is available to watch in full on the Bedales Vimeo channel here.

Bouverie stressed that politicians have simply taken the wrong lessons from Chamberlain’s disasterous attempt to woo Adolf Hitler in 1938 by getting him to sign a doomed agreement promising no further territorial demands in Europe. Opposition to appeasement, Bouverie argued, has instilled belligerence in politicians – leading to Anthony Eden’s Suez Canal debacle in 1956, the invasion of Iraq in the 1980s and the second invasion of Iraq in 2003. Hawkishness, Bush made clear, can be no substitute for appeasement. The two are simply a false dichotomy. 

Matt also asked Tim about his personal life and what inspired his interest in history, and appeasement specifically. Tim had worked for Channel 4 News for a few years, and as a journalist. He covered various political events, such as the Brexit campaign, requiring him to travel across the country. Although he got the contract to write the book long before any of these events happened, he describes the EU Referendum and the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as occurrences which seemed to validate the importance of the matter about which he was writing.

Tim’s interest in appeasement seemed to revolve around Neville Chamberlain’s character and the naïve attitude at the time regarding Hitler. The 1930s were a wonderful decade for political diaries, he informed us, and they were often witty – as well as deeply ironic. In his research, he documented how many diaries of MPs seemed to believe that Adolf Hitler was under control (the big exception, of course, was Winston Churchill, who vocally warned of the dangers of Nazism). Then again, politicians tended to overestimate the damage of the Blitz. Churchill warned that within the first few months of the Blitz, there would be up to 40,000 casualties (the number was nothing close to that). One politician, Tim noted, warned that bombing could destroy the entire city of Leeds within 45 minutes. Matt wittingly commented that as a man from Manchester, such an event did not seem so bad to him.

Tim was interested in the character of Chamberlain – and the talk was made interesting because his character was not dissimilar to that of the incumbent’s. Chamberlain was known for his arrogance and extraordinary stubbornness (do any of those characteristics ring a bell?). He insisted that appeasement was the correct policy and refused to listen to any dissenting view. Although, this view was understandably shared amongst many politicians and voters, many of whom had relatives who had been victims of the First World War – nobody wanted war.

The audience asked very questions, and Tim returned them with very interesting responses. Questions ranged from how the principles of appeasement can be applied to the world’s post-Covid relationship with China, to if Chamberlain’s age affected his policy decisions. Tim stressed that the principles of international cooperation are necessitous and imperative to fighting climate change, a global pandemic and taking on an ever-more aggressive Chinese Communist Party. Tim’s answers to questions, ideas and unique historical perspectives made his talk incredibly interesting and worth the night.

Remembering Bedales co-founder Oswald Powell

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By Matilda McMorrow, Librarian

“It is never good for the governed or for the government that injustice should be tolerated without protest,” began Oswald Powell in his letter to the Hants & Sussex News in 1913. At the time he was fighting alongside Winifred Powell in solidarity with all women, in a society that took women’s work, money and lives whilst refusing them the right to be seen as people. The Powells would protest this injustice for five more years before any UK women had voting rights. They confronted the tax authorities, took local action in Petersfield and international action at a Budapest conference, and of course, tried to model social change in their work at Bedales. This collaborative, action-driven spirit seems to have been at the heart of the man who co-founded Bedales, and certainly put life into the ideas of John Badley, whose name we might be more familiar with.

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